Did I mention it won a Hugo?

Redshirts — John Scalzi


I’m about to review John Scalzi’s 2012 standalone Hugo-winner Redshirts and I have a problem. I do not have much of a sense of humour, which makes me a bad fit for a book widely known to be funny. You may therefore expect a review that concentrates on the metaphysical underpinnings of the book than on the jokes. Incidentally, you can also look forward to the first ever James Nicoll review cliff-hanger!

The Intrepid is the Universal Union’s flagship, a mighty vessel to which only the most important missions are given, a ship whose command crew have earned the highest accolades. Kudos to seminary-student-turned-ensign Andrew Dahl for warranting such a plum assignment.

There’s just one catch.

Intrepid’s rank-challenged crewmembers have noticed a distressing pattern in mission outcomes. Officers head down to trouble spots, ensigns in tow, and officers return, shy at least one unfortunate ensign. Now this could be an unfortunate side-effect of the fact that the Intrepid always gets the toughest missions … but a covert analysis of fleet statistics shows the apprehensive ensigns that it isn’t. For some reason, service on the Intrepid is far more dangerous than it should be, and it’s lethal in a very rank-specific way.

The command crew—Captain Abernathy, Commander Q’eeng, Chief Engineer West, Medical Chief Hartnell, and the handsome Lieutenant Kerensky—are curiously oblivious to the issue. Even unfortunate Lieutenant Kerensky, whose horrific injuries on every mission are both routine and oddly survivable, fails to see any problem.

Avoiding away missions is a good first step for death-averse ensigns, but insufficient to guarantee safety. Deep space encounters end in combat all too frequently and invariably feature hull breaches of the sort through which one or more unfortunate ensigns could be blown into deep space. And that sucks.

A crewman named Jenkins claims to have the answer. The ensigns are all victims of a dark and terrible god. The darkest and most terrible god of all.

A hack writer….


Under other circumstances, you might expect this review to contain a rant re the blatant, bland whiteness of most of the cast. However, the characters are living out a lousy American TV show from 2012; it makes sense their demographics would be … narrow. American TV is run by people who are pretty uncomfortable with the recent discovery that not everyone is white. Or a man. “We’re trapped in a bad TV show” explains a lot of things.

Because this is a comedy about a television science fiction show1, a lot of people have compared the book to Galaxy Quest. I was reminded more ofolder SF like … a novel I will get back to later … as well as works like Lorrah and Hunt’s Visit to a Weird Planet, Berman’s sequel Visit to a Weird Planet Revisited, Chandler’s Hall of Fame, and Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky. Stories in which characters are forced to come to terms with being fictional characters.

Since I know for a fact that Scalzi hadn’t heard of the first two when he wrote Redshirts, and is a bit young to have encountered the second two, I bet none of those figured into the genesis of this novel. It may be that the end of Grant Morrison’s Animal Man did; I should have asked. Ah, well.

It seems to me like this sort of metafictional humour probably cannot support much weight (just go read the later issues in Bryne’s run on She-Hulk). Perhaps this is why Scalzi keeps this comedy comparatively brief, just 231 pages.

Ah, you say, but I have the ISFDB in my bookmarks and it claims that the Anglophone editions are anywhere from 317 to 320 pages! What’s up with that, you ask in a tone of voice just begging for the following clarification, after which you worship me like a living god (it’s in print, it has to be true).

There are three codas to the story, each exploring a different implication for characters in the so-called real world2 level of reality of the story thus far. The comedy was OK but the codas are my favourite part of Redshirts, the part I was eagerly anticipating when I reread this.

Redshirts can be purchased here.

Wait, you ask, what happened to getting back to “a novel I will get back to later?” I will.

Just not today.

1: The doomed ensign angle brought to mind an entirely different book.

2: They are still all characters in a fictional world. They just think they’re real. Or rather, the author has created the illusion that they think they are real. Actually, it’s all just a sequence of words on a page.

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